Nostalgia: Free of superstitious hysteria

Archbishop of York, Edmund Grindal ordered a visitation to Scarborough and St Mary's Church in 1575.
Archbishop of York, Edmund Grindal ordered a visitation to Scarborough and St Mary's Church in 1575.

Reading through the borough and court records of the early seventeenth century, it seems that Scarborough was remarkably free of the superstitious hysteria which then affected so many other communities. No blame can be attached to the remaining Catholics of the old faith, Puritans of the new, or most of the town’s residents who were officially Anglican but in practice pagan.

Two major visitations or inspections by the archbishop of York, one in 1575 by Grindal, the other in 1633, by Neile, revealed much non-attendance at Sunday services at St Mary’s, but no hint of sorcery or witchcraft. In 1575, two townsmen were described as “abominable adulterers” who had harboured a third who had committed incest with his sister; two parishioners were accused of evil living and harbouring “suche as be of noughty behaivor”; one mother was suspected of infanticide; two men were living in adultery; but all the remaining offenders, about 70 in number, were only absent from Sunday services or had refused to put money in the poor box.

By 1633, little had changed. The church fabric was still in need of repair, fornication was still the principal moral offence, and misbehaviour during church services a serious problem. Scarborough had no witches.

During these years, Scarborough’s vicars seem to have lived relatively unblemished lives. Henry Langdale, 1559 to 1602, and William Ward, 1602 to 1608, had been presented to the living by Queen Elizabeth and as such were conformist Anglicans. William Ward resigned in 1608, though it is not clear why. At the beginning of 1603, “Master Warde...our preacher” was granted a stipend of only five pounds a year for the next three years on condition that he gave the bailiffs six months notice of his decision to retire. All we have of Ward is a letter written to the bailiffs, dated November 6, 1607, and signed by “your careful pastor and loving freind to use” recommending “a gentleman” to succeed him. Could he afford to exist on £4 a year?

After Ward came Timothy Taylor, about whom we know even less. He was the choice of the Earl of Bridgwater, who from now on appointed Scarborough’s vicars. After Taylor’s death in 1630, his place was taken by William Simpson, about whom we know a great deal. His favourite tipple was sweet Canary white wine and he consumed and paid for large quantities to the local vintners. He became private chaplain to Sir Hugh Cholmley when he was the town’s Royalist governor during the Civil War; and his two sons went into the castle with Cholmley and one became a Royalist privateer after the surrender. From St Mary’s pulpit, Simpson denounced all who fought against the King as “caterpillars, canker wormes & cursed Achitophells” and said that they were like those who had rebelled against Moses.

Nor was a witch-hunt in Scarborough likely to be led by its schoolmaster. Mr William Penston, a Scotsman, was appointed by the bailiffs in 1627 and taught the local boys Latin and Greek for the next 50 years(!) at an annual salary of £10. Only deafness and blindness ended his career. During these years he had sworn allegiance to Charles I, the Commonwealth, the Protectorate and Charles II in succession.

Given these figures, it would be surprising if Scarborough had experienced any witch-hunting, but there was one short interval and one tantalising episode during it that gives some indication that the town was not entirely and always free of frenzy.

Only a single case of alleged witchcraft has been found in Scarborough’s court records up to 1660, and even that one was of doubtful substance.

It was deeply significant, not mere coincidence, that the case occurred in 1652 during the only year when Luke Robinson, the radical Puritan, was serving as senior bailiff. On March 19, Robinson examined a number of female witnesses, namely Margery Fysh, a widow, Mary Westow, and Elizabeth Dale, about the condition of a four-year-old daughter of John and Anne Allen, who was said to suffer from violent fits. There were gruesome descriptions given of the poor child’s afflictions. According to Mary Westow’s testimony:

“She was some tymes drawn together in a round little heap & some tymes soe stiffe thrust out as this informant & another could not bend hir, some tymes hir hands & armes drawne together & the mouth some tyme wide open & other tyme shutt & the toung hanging out & blood came off the mouth.”

Anne Allen had called in Elizabeth Hodgson and given her tuppence to cure her daughter, which she had done, as promised, “before twelve of the clock”. However, Anne was told by Elizabeth that the child was bewitched by Anne Hunnam alias Merchant, and therefore could not be cured permanently.

As a result, Robinson ordered a thorough physical examination of Anne Hunnman. Sure enough, she was found to have “a little blew spot upon her left side, into which spott [Margery Fysh] thrust a pinne, att which Anne Hunnam never moved nor seemed to feel itt, which spott growes out of her flesh or skin as a wort of a great bigness”.

A blue spot on the left buttock of a woman was believed to be the Devil’s own mark and no amount of surgery would remove it or cause the bearer pain. However, when Anne Hunnam was questioned by Robinson she strongly denied that she had ever practised “any conjuracions, witchcraft or evil intents”.

Suspicion was now transferred to Elizabeth Hodgson who had made the original accusation. A formal indictment was prepared against her for “unlawfully and wickedly” practising “the vocation or conjuracion of evill and wicked spiritts”.

Unfortunately, this is where the trail ends abruptly and finally, since records of the Michaelmas quarter sessions of 1652 at Scarborough have not survived. Nevertheless, the presence in the town of Luke Robinson, a notorious, fanatical Calvinist, convinced of his own predestined salvation, who detested witchcraft as the work of anti-Christ, shows that even communities like Scarborough’s were vulnerable to the epidemic of witch-hunting before it died out.